Halloween fell on a Wednesday in 1979 and it was a night that I will never forget. I was working on a service truck for an old-school electrical contractor in the high desert of Western Colorado. Warren owned the shop and had been in business for over 40 years when I got there. He had the best jobs in town and long-standing relationships with people and institutions that insured that he and his employees were always busy.
I completed my workday and returned to the shop at 4:15 pm to unload my gear and finish filling out my work orders. The shop foreman, Dusty, was waiting for me in the parking lot. “I need to see you after you settle in.”
“Naw, I’m looking for someone to work a little overtime tonight and you’re next in line.”
“Alright, I’ll see you in a few.” Ten minutes later, with my paperwork in order, I went in search of Dusty.
“Whatcha got, Boss?”
“It should only take you a few hours, it’s out at the cemetery.”
I looked out the window at the gathering dusk. The sun was about to be a memory, the temperature was already in the low 40s and promised to drop another 10 or 15 degrees overnight. A job in a cemetery on Halloween night. How could I pass that up?
“Sounds like a trip. I am going to have to call my wife and let her know that I’ll be late.”
“Good. Meet me outside at your truck when you’re done.”
I called the Lioness and Dusty gathered tools and materials for me. He was loading them into the back of my shop truck when I found him in the darkened parking lot. “So here’s the deal, the cemetery is opening up a new section for more plots and this afternoon they were digging a trench for a drainage line…”
“Yep, they nicked an underground feeder to an irrigation pump station.”
“They didn’t know it was there? They didn’t look on the plans?”
“They did and it wasn’t. They knocked out the existing pump house and now there is no irrigation water for the entire place.” Dusty looked down at the contents of the box. “So, what you have to do is take this extra wire and these Hypress couplings and splice everything back together. It’s underground Triplex cable, not pipe and wire. You’ve got splice kits in here to seal the Hypress fittings. It’s single phase, so don’t worry about motor rotation.”
This was good news, unlike a three-phase circuit I did not have to be concerned with which hot wire went to which. The pump motors would turn in the right direction—clockwise or counter-clockwise—no matter what combination of wires I used. Things were looking up and the sun was going down.
“I am going to need to bring extra rubber tape and Scotch-Kote to waterproof the shit out of everything.”
“Done and done they’re in the box,” said Dusty. “Now here’s the thing, there is a burial service tomorrow right next to this trench and they want to get this repaired and covered up tonight out of respect to the family of the newly departed.”
“You’ve got it, boss. We don’t want anybody falling in a ditch at such a solemn occasion.”
“The groundskeeper is named Herman, he will meet you at the gate. Good luck out there tonight.”
I got in the truck, turned on the headlights, and drove East towards the cemetery with less than an hour of good daylight remaining. The setting sun was an orange dot on the bottom of my rear-view mirror.
Traffic was light and the sky was dark when I pulled up to the closed gates of the cemetery. A few hundred yards away I could see a pickup truck parked in front of a long single-story office building. I heard the truck engine start up. The headlights were turned on and the vehicle headed in my direction.
I got out of my truck and walked up to the gate. The truck stopped about ten feet away and the driver got out and stood up. And up. And up, all the way to his full six-foot fourteen-inch height. Alright, he wasn’t that tall, but he was a big guy.
“I’m Al, are you Herman? Dusty sent me.” Might as well cover all the bases.
“Yeah, that’s me. We are mighty glad you could make it tonight. Thanks for taking the time to do this.” We shook hands through the bars of the gate. His hand was the size of a catcher’s mitt.
“No problem, I’m happy to help you out.”
Herman unlocked and opened the gate.
“We got a burial first thing in the morning. It’s in the new section out yonder.” Herman pointed into the dark. The only thing that I could see was a wispy three-foot high layer of ground fog that hovered about four feet off the ground and stretched as far as I could see across the horizon.
“C’mon I’ll take you back there. Say, you brought a ladder with you, right?”
“A-a-a ladder? Did I bring a ladder? Yes, I did, but I thought you cut an underground feeder? You know, in a new drainage ditch?”
“A ditch? We were digging a grave when we hit the feeder. It’s six feet down, son.”
There is a big difference between a ditch and a grave. Ditches tend to be longer and graves tend to be deeper. I made a mental note to discuss this with Dusty in the morning.
“Can’t you just move the grave over a few feet?”
“All the plots are laid out inline, like rows and columns. We can’t throw off the alignment of the whole place just for one grave, now can we?”
“Good point, I hadn’t really thought that through,” I said. “Lead the way, Herman, I’ll be right behind you.”
We got into our respective trucks and I followed Herman across the cemetery grounds, pondering all the while what a game changer this turned out to be. Other than being a pall-bearer at my grandfather’s burial eleven years before, I didn’t have much experience with grave sites and cemeteries.
Herman drove across an open field and into the fog bank. A few minutes later we stopped and got out of our trucks. Herman pointed down at the open grave and said, “You’re gonna need some light down there. I’ll leave the headlights of the pickup on. I can go back to the garage and get some flashlights if you need ’em.”
“Thanks, but that isn’t necessary. Dusty put some lanterns in the back of the truck before I left and I have more flashlights in the side-bins if I need ’em. I’m good.”
“OK. If you change your mind, or need somethin’—help, tools, whatever—just honk the horn of your truck 3 times and I’ll be right out. I have a little hidey-hole in the pump house just over there.” Herman gestured toward a low building that was set into a small hillside. It was barely visible, even though it was less than 100 feet away. “The power’s off, but double check it anyway.”
“Will do. I am good to go, pardner.” I watched the shape of a very large man disappear into the fog. The silence that ensued was overwhelming.
It was time to get to the gettin’, as they say. I took an eight foot ladder off the rack on the truck, grabbed my trusty Maglite and headed for the hole. I turned on the flashlight and shined it on the bottom of the grave. I could see two severed wires and a neutral conductor that was slashed down to bare wire, but remarkably unbroken. I lowered the ladder into the grave, took a look around and as I started down I muttered to myself, Who will ever believe this story?
My breath formed wispy white balloons of condensation as I looked up at the dirt piled evenly along both of the long edges of the hole. It is a funny thing about a grave, as big they look on top of the ground, they are a lot smaller when you are on the bottom looking up. At least this one did. At night. In the fog. As the temperature dropped.
I checked out the situation to see what I needed. Dusty gave me the right size wire and Hypress couplings (bless his soul) and I had enough material to insulate and protect the splices when I finished terminating the conductors. There was no reason for not completing this job tonight.
I looked around at the scarred dirt sides and bottom of the grave. I glanced up at the top of the ladder, illuminated by the headlights of the groundskeeper’s truck. Maybe it was the cool night air, or perhaps it was the contrast of the ribbon of white fog slicing through the black night sky, that gave me one of those whole-body chills that go deep into your core.
As I stood in the bottom of that grave, I could remember every one of the bloody endings to every horror film that I had ever seen. Images of ghosts, goblins, graves and ghoulish monsters paraded through my mind, even though I didn’t believe in any of it.
I remembered the words of my favorite journeyman, Regis, when I was a young apprentice, “C’mon Al – the heat’s in the tools.” Apparently I needed more tools if I was going to warm up any time soon, so I got to work.
After testing and re-testing the wires to ensure they were dead [no pun intended], I made several trips up and down the ladder to the truck for tools, material, and lanterns. A half an hour later I was working up a good sweat and grateful for recalling Regis’ thoughtful advice.
Before I put the last coating of protective water-proofing on the feeder wires I decided to stand up and stretch out my back. As I arched back and stretched my arms out and away from my body I found myself looking at the toes of two enormous work boots, just above eye-level, hanging over the top edge of the grave.
I exhaled a chestful of air and froze in place. Who was it? When did they get here? More to the point, did they have an axe?
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Al,” Herman said. “I brought you some hot chocolate. I figured you could use some warmin’ up.”
“T-T-Th-Thanks, Herman, I-I-I really appreciate the thought. This is going to h-h-hit the spot.”
Herman reached down and handed me a steaming mug of chocolate and picked up a matching one off the top of the ladder. We clinked our mugs together and toasted each other. The two of us stood there in the silence of the Halloween night enjoying our hot chocolate, me in a grave and Herman towering above me, back-lit by the headlights of his truck. This was like a Stephen King novel that had a happy ending.
By the time I finished drinking the beverage my pulse had returned to normal and I completed repairing the underground feeder. I added a few extra wraps of tape and more Scotch-Kote just to make sure that it was properly sealed. I didn’t want to be the guy responsible for having to dig up Aunt Bessie at some future date because the spliced cable underneath her had failed.
Herman took me to the main panel and I turned on the circuit breaker and together we tested the pumps and verified that they operated properly. After resetting the time clock and loading up my truck it was time to leave.
As I drove through the front gate I had to stop and ask one last question. “Herman why do you work in a cemetery?”
Herman grinned wide and said, “Because I’m a people-person.”
We both laughed and I drove off into the night.
I never worked in a cemetery again.